Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2008) in Poker Player newspaper.
While teaching poker these past 35 or so years, I’ve often strayed from discussions of table tactics. Table tactics can be broadly defined as poker skills that include both strategic analysis and psychology, including tells. There are, of course, other factors that build your bankroll — things that happen beyond the table. Game selection is one. Taking the time to study poker is another.
Those factors don’t fit the term “table tactics.” But they aren’t things I’m going to discuss today, either. Instead, we’re about to deal with emotion — today’s word. Many players have enough talent to win, but lose because emotions get in the way. Some readers are thinking that today’s advice won’t apply to them, but it will. You’ll see.
Here’s a quick reminder: This is another in a series of columns in which I get to ask my own questions and then answer them. Even though each column stands alone and doesn’t require you to have read any others, we pick up the number sequence where we left off last time. And that brings us to…
Question 110: Do emotional players fare better than unemotional ones?
Yes and no. You need to feel what others are feeling to be a truly great poker player. I’ve heard it said that the best players have no feelings for opponents, and this allows them to go about their business of winning the money in a cold, calculated, unemotional, robotic manner. But that’s a big fat lie.
Sure, you can win without caring about your opponents, but you won’t win as much as you could if you understood their joys and their pain — and used that knowledge to your advantage. Tells, in poker, are puzzles to be solved. I’ve solved many of them. And the solution to each tell came from mentally instilling myself into opponents’ situations and trying to feel what they were feeling. When you can do that, you have a good chance of understanding what they’re trying to do by their actions. Just pretend you’re that opponent at that moment making that bet. Would the mannerism feel right if you had a strong hand or if you were bluffing? You’ll be surprised how often you can correctly solve that puzzle with certainty if you let your emotions help you out.
So, understanding and feeling emotions can be a big advantage if you use that skill to increase profit. But being emotional can also be blinding. Emotions can cause you to get frustrated and stop caring. Emotions can detour a disciplined game plan and turn winners into life-long losers.
A trick to winning the most money you can at poker is to be unemotional and calculating in your decisions, while allowing yourself to fell the emotions of others. It might take practice to do this, but that’s the whole secret, simply stated.
Question 111: How do you emotionally handle a bad run of cards?
By not caring. You need to understand what your objective is when you play poker in quest of profit. Your objective shouldn’t be to make money. Your results will take care of themselves over time. You can’t do anything about good cards or bad cards. They just happen.
Your objective should be to make the best decisions you can always. If it will help you maintain discipline, just pretend that I’m paying you by the hour to play. As long as you make good decisions, I’ll continue to pay you. I won’t care whether you won a pot or lost it, as long as you did the right thing. I know that in the long run, I’ll expect to do just fine if you don’t make mistakes. So, I’ll monitor how you play, but I won’t care how much money you won or lost.
And that’s what you should do on your own. You’re paying yourself by the hour. In the short run, you might be losing. But, so what? Imagine you’re being paid by the hour to make the right decisions — because, eventually, you are.
Question 112: Is it okay to go easy on an opponent you feel sorry for?
No. You should never play a friend softly. And that’s true for a stranger you feel sorry for, too. Never go easy on anyone, unless there’s a long-term strategic advantage in doing so. Maybe you can make a point of showing sympathy and just calling with a full house. That’s okay if you intend to bluff this poor soul out of his chair at the next opportunity.
That’s cruel, you’re thinking. You’re right. But I want you to be cruel. Friendly, but cruel. Go after all the money — every final cent of it. Emotionally, it’s a good thing to feel sorry for an opponent. It means you’re sensitive and alert to human feelings. It probably means you understand human behavior. It means you’ll be able to win more money by getting inside opponents’ heads.
But here’s the deal: It’s never okay to ease up on opponents. If you truly feel bad about them losing, then take all their money first. Then you can give it back when they leave the table — if you still want to.
Question 113: What should you do if events that are occurring in your life are distracting you from playing good poker?
Don’t play. If you have financial or romantic troubles that are preoccupying your thoughts, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to play quality poker. Resolve those issues first. Don’t play poker until it matters enough that you can fully focus on it.
Question 114: What can you do to keep from being upset by bad beats at the poker table?
Cheer for your opponents. It works for me. Cheering for your opponents won’t change the cards, so there’s no penalty for doing it. And you won’t get upset and damage your bankroll by letting your emotions rule. Instead, if your opponents win, then you’ve cheered for the winning side. And if they lose, well, you get a consolation prize — the pot. — MC